In just six minutes, The Accidental Choir Mistress delves into grief, community, creativity and the nurturing salve of connections, trust and the power of song to ease those difficult times. There’s also a tangible quiet which draws you into the physical and emotional space.
The documentary about Vicky Abbott and the choir she leads was made by Jo Barker and Holly Black of Black Bark Films for the Hypatia Trust as part of the Women of Cornish Music: Past & Present project.
The Accidental Choir Mistress was produced by Florence Browne, whom Jo and Holly met through North Devon Moving Image’s Down On The Farm set of films.
Holly was in Falmouth training to be a puppeteer when she posed the question ‘do you know any incredibly inspiring women that make music in Cornwall?’ to course leader Sarah Wright, who suggested Vicky Abbott.
A bit of research into Vicky by the Black Bark two unearthed shared ethics and ideas, and an approach that immediately struck a chord with the filmmakers.
Meant to happen
“This was a very different way of working, and actually everything about it worked out perfectly. As soon as we met her in person, it was like we were best mates. We sat around and it was like this was always meant to happen,” says Jo.
Making a successful documentary relies on making a connection with the people in the film and building a relationship.
“We’ve always had a very easy way with people. We’re very sociable, very open and friendly. The energy you bring into a room usually helps,” says Jo.
They are aware of trying to create a trusting, open environment by being open and trusting themselves.
A trusting, open environment
“We give them space to express who they are before we start recording. If someone allows you in their environment, you’re respectful of their way of being and you learn to be with them, as opposed to directing them about – that’s why we have a very observational documentary approach to our work,” says Jo.
“It was really interesting with Vicky,” says Holly. “We’d gone up there to film the birds out of the window, and she started talking about her mother’s death. Very quickly, we realised this isn’t a film about a community choir. This is a film about connection and loss of connection, and bringing people together. It was magical.”
Vicky herself was a very easy person to be around; she’s in the community, people like and respond to her well and she’s a very strong person, say the filmmakers. They were able to connect quite deeply, quite quickly.
“I think she was ready,” says Jo. “Sometimes you feel that people are ready to talk about something, and then you’re just there at the right time.
“We didn’t direct it too much. We always keep mindful that there is a theme to what we’re trying to make. But this massive story came out of it about grief that we hadn’t expected at all.”
Holly: “That’s why I love documentaries, because you never know what you’re going to get. If you’re authentically trying to listen to someone’s story and trying to represent them in a real, true way and not be sensationalist, and not be too limited by the boundaries that you have, then you don’t know what’s going to happen.
Jo: “It’s amazing, but it makes it hard pitching for funding. Every time we make a film, it surprises me. And the same themes come up. You realise humans, at their core, are very similar and they have similar needs and have had similar experiences. They are dressed up differently around culture, race, identity, time and age.
“We all go through stages of grief on a daily basis, on a monthly basis, on a yearly basis. And when you’ve got someone like Vicky, who is very open with us – she told us some really intimate things – we’re super grateful that she told us these things and was happy for us to use them in a film.”
Holly: “Both of us aren’t naturally that comfortable with shoving a camera in people’s faces when they’re feeling vulnerable. The camera is kind of magic because you’re putting it in front of people and it’s allowing them the space to feel things in a more public way – it is allowing a new way of being seen.”
As filmmakers, they’ve felt the tension in their approach between trying to hide the camera away and using a long lens so as not to interrupt any moments of vulnerability.
“It’s been an interesting journey because that’s something that we’ve delicately honed,” says Holly.
Jo says they are explicit about being there to film. “But we fade away into the background so you can express yourself without that fear of people watching. There’s something that Holly and I have tried to do, it’s to become invisible so that you don’t take up too much space. We’ve learned that – as women you kind of feel that anyway.
The truth of things
“There is a power to the camera, and you have to be really aware of it and really careful. But when it’s done right, it does get to the truth of things.”
That truth can shine through in the way the film is edited. Jo had style from being trained in media at the UWE and going straight into the industry. Holly came to it from a different direction.
“Working from a human rights background, I was hypersensitive about telling people’s stories,” she says. “We both now understand a bit more the complexities of representation.”
Jo: “When you get trained in something, until you’re asked to do it differently, you don’t realise you’ve been trained to do it that way.”
Jo highlights the start of their film One Acre, with an opening shot that lasted 45 seconds. “You can stare at a painting for hours because they painted it beautifully and made it immediately interesting. You can also do that with a shot. I’ve been on a massive journey personally with it. But I don’t think I’ve ever felt I didn’t know what the story was, and that’s because we listened so deeply. “
Expression, self-knowledge, reflecting
What’s the role of the artist in society?
Jo: “For me, it’s about expression. It’s about self-knowledge. It’s about reflecting on what is happening in the here and now, learning from what happened before or imagining the future.
Holly: “Art is a form of connection, and it’s a form of community. I don’t think we can exist in a solitary existence without some form of expression and creativity. I’ve always had an interesting tension and relationship with my own creativity, but it’s always felt essential. Even if it’s not me putting things out into the world. It’s also soaking it in from other people.”
The Accidental Choir Mistress is at Two Short Nights at the Exeter Phoenix on Friday, February 4.